Will Paper Straws Salvage the Environment?

May 16, 2019 by Yurie Lee


South Korea consumed 98.2kg of plastic products per capita in 2016, dethroning the United States (97.7kg) as the world's greatest per-capita consumer of plastics (Statistics Korea). In order to solve such severe environmental issues and promote sustainable development, the South Korean government has implemented the “natural circulation” initiative, aiming to gradually reduce 20% of Korea’s waste by 2027. Starting from this year, the Ministry of Environment partnered up with 21 major coffee shop brands and fast food franchises, such as Starbucks and McDonald’s, to ban the use of disposable cups and plastic straws. In turn, the Ministry has proposed transitioning to alternatives, encouraging consumers to use eco-friendly products such as paper straws and reusable mugs. Let us examine several different perspectives regarding paper straws and their effectiveness.

To begin with, why are plastic straws harmful to our environment? Contrary to how short-lived these easy-come-and-go plastic straws are in the hands of consumers, they take 200 years to fully decompose. Most of these straws end up in deep sea waters, polluting the world’s water sources and killing marine animals that mistake pieces of plastic for food. Considering that the degradation in ocean water quality is being exacerbated by a continual expansion of landfills, the use of plastic straws is an urgent issue to turn our attention to. As the importance of recyclable and organic materials has been a hot topic around the world for a while, many companies have recently begun distributing paper straws over their plastic counterparts. Participating businesses include coffee shops, offices, sports stadiums, movie theaters, and so on—Starbucks being a prominent example of a giant brand committed to replacing all disposable plastic straws by 2020. Having observed such significant efforts in the business sector to save the environment, it is worthy to discuss about the actual long term effects of paper straws to the conservation of the Earth.

The most important argument in favor of paper straws is that they are biodegradable. That is, they break down faster and are hence absorbed quickly into the soil. However, small pieces of plastics either wander around the ocean, often becoming ingested by turtles, or spend centuries sitting in landfills. Research proves that paper straws each take two months at most to fully decompose back into the earth.

Yet, the public seems skeptical about using paper straws. As of today, paper straws cost three times more than plastic straws and become soggy or lose shape too fast. Nonetheless, staunch supporters of paper straws argue that to a certain extent, it is impossible to reduce pollution without sacrificing convenience. Although this is not a perfect solution to save our world as most people prefer sturdy plastic materials over mushy paper products, when considering the benefits brought to Earth and our future, it is more than a generous tradeoff.

However, some are against this idea that “any green solution is a solution”. Although paper straws may seem more organic, the same harms are still in place as long as they are single-use products.

Especially in crowded cities where all the waste is thrown into garbage piles in landfills instead of eco-friendly zones (parks, seawater, etc.) where paper products can decompose undisturbed, paper straws are not much different from plastic ones. In such places, the issue is not how long it relatively takes for each of the different materials to decompose, but rather how to lessen the absolute amount of waste itself. In this sense, replacing plastic with paper is merely an economic loss in which consumers are dissatisfied and producers bear a higher burden.

Furthermore, paper straws may actually have comparable levels of chemical harm to the environment because they release carbon dioxide gas as well as toxic and highly flammable methane gas into the atmosphere during their decomposition in landfills. Therefore, some argue that a material’s capacity to decompose quickly or efficiently is not a good enough justification.

Considering such perspectives, paper straws may not be a purely flawless eco-friendly alternative people expect them to be. However, what is evident is that the environmental harm on our planet caused by an enormous amount of undecomposed plastic is severe. All in all, it is clear that we need to significantly reduce our use of plastic straws and that paper straws can be a great way to start that process. Rather than simply swapping plastic for paper, a step by step process of discouraging the need of plastic straws and gradually decreasing its use will be more effective. Regardless of material, both paper and plastic straws are still single-use waste items.

At the end of the day, we need to do our best to be environmentally responsible, and that starts with calling attention to and being alert of the environmental problems around us. The question we will have to answer is whether paper straws reduce pollution, but the bigger challenge left to us is how we will change our way of living to utilize sustainable items that can be used over and over again.

The UIC Scribe was founded in 2006 as the official student-run newsmagazine of Underwood International College. It celebrates diversity of thinking, excellence in writing, and the freedom of self-expression.